He made tract homes art­ful

WIL­LIAM KRISEL, 1924 - 2017

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Claire Noland news.obits@la­times.com Noland is a for­mer Times staff writer. Times staff writer Lisa Boone con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Krisel, whose dis­tinc­tive homes fea­ture but­terf ly roofs and pat­terned con­crete blocks, dies at 92.

Wil­liam Krisel, an ar­chi­tect whose homes fea­tur­ing but­ter­fly roofs, pat­terned con­crete block walls and post-and-beam con­struc­tion put a Mod­ernist stamp on South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s sub­urbs in the 1950s and ’60s, died Mon­day at his home in Bev­erly Hills. He was 92.

Krisel de­signed the fu­tur­is­tic “House of To­mor­row” in Palm Springs, which was fea­tured in Look magazine in 1962 and five years later came to be known as the hon­ey­moon hide­out of Elvis and Priscilla Pres­ley.

With his busi­ness part­ner, the late Dan Saxon Palmer, Krisel de­signed many other cus­tom homes in Bel-Air and Brent­wood, start­ing in 1949.

But it was Krisel’s de­signs for thou­sands of tract homes built by Alexan­der Con­struc­tion Co. in the Coachella Val­ley, pri­mar­ily as va­ca­tion or sec­ond homes, that ce­mented his ca­reer and shaped the im­age of Palm Springs as a mecca for Mid­cen­tury Mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.

The firm of Palmer and Krisel found a way to make mod­ern de­sign ac­ces­si­ble to mid­dle-class home buy­ers, ac­cord­ing to ar­chi­tec­ture critic Alan Hess.

“They brought ex­cel­lent and el­e­gant mod­ern de­sign to mass-pro­duced hous­ing,” Hess said in a 2008 in­ter­view with The Times. “That’s sig­nif­i­cant be­cause ev­ery big name in mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture at mid­cen­tury tried to crack into the mass-pro­duced hous­ing mar­ket. And they all failed. Palmer and Krisel, who weren’t at all well­known, solved the prob­lem.”

Soon af­ter Krisel grad­u­ated from USC in 1949, he and Palmer per­suaded devel­op­ers Ge­orge and Robert Alexan­der to let them de­sign tract houses in the west end of the San Fer­nando Val­ley.

The ar­chi­tects’ clean and sim­ple con­tem­po­rary de­sign and mo­du­lar post-and-beam con­struc­tion method al­lowed for ex­pan­sive use of glass and open floor plans that melded in­door and out­door liv­ing spa­ces.

“Be­fore that, af­ford­able tract houses were tacky, low-ceil­ing cracker boxes with holes poked out for win­dows,” Krisel told The Times in 2008.

The houses in the 1953 Corbin Palms sub­di­vi­sion are clus­tered around Corbin Av­enue along the Tarzana-Reseda-Win­netka bor­der.

The homes sold quickly and prof­itably, in part be­cause they were built ef­fi­ciently with newer, less-ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als and with eas­ily repli­cated cookie-cut­ter fix­tures such as light­ing, doors and win­dows.

The Alexan­ders, a fa­ther-and­son team, saw their next op­por­tu­nity in Palm Springs. They re­tained Palmer and Krisel in 1956 to de­sign the Ocotillo Lodge mo­tel on East Palm Canyon Drive and homes for the ad­ja­cent Twin Palms tract, one of the area’s first ma­jor sub­di­vi­sions.

The early houses were of mod­est size, about 1,600 square feet in a sin­gle story, fea­tur­ing iden­ti­cal floor plans based on post-and-beam con­struc­tion, floor-to-ceil­ing glass win­dows that pro­vided views of the strik­ing land­scape, and large over­hangs af­ford­ing shade from the harsh cli­mate.

To break up the sameness, dif­fer­ent roof lines in an­gu­lar sweeps were ap­plied to the fa­cades, and floor plans were flopped or skewed on the con­crete slab lots.

Breeze­ways and car­ports con­structed of mo­du­lar, pat­terned con­crete blocks, along with air­con­di­tion­ing sys­tems, swim­ming pools and palm trees, rounded out the pack­age.

From that be­gin­ning in the mid-1950s, Krisel went on to de­sign more than 2,500 tract homes for the Alexan­ders in the sprawl­ing desert at the base of the San Jac­into Moun­tains. But the Palm Springs projects ended abruptly when nearly the en­tire Alexan­der fam­ily was killed in a plane crash in 1965.

That was also about the time the Palmer and Krisel part­ner­ship was dis­solv­ing. While Palmer had over­seen op­er­a­tions in Los An­ge­les, Or­ange and Ven­tura coun­ties, Krisel was cov­er­ing San Diego and River­side coun­ties.

The ar­chi­tects went their sep­a­rate ways in 1964, and Krisel con­tin­ued to de­sign res­i­den­tial homes as well as high-rise con­do­mini­ums and com­mer­cial build­ings. Palmer died in 2007. Krisel was born Nov. 14, 1924, in Shang­hai to Amer­i­can par­ents who worked for the U.S. State Depart­ment. He and his fam­ily re­turned to the United States in 1937, and the teenage Krisel was in­spired to be­come an ar­chi­tect af­ter read­ing about Frank Lloyd Wright in Life magazine.

He en­rolled at USC in 1941 but en­listed in the Army af­ter the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor. Be­cause he spoke Chi­nese flu­ently, he was as­signed to be an in­ter­preter for Gen. Joseph Stil­well.

When World War II ended, Krisel re­turned to USC and stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture and land­scape de­sign. He grad­u­ated in 1949, worked for a time for ar­chi­tect Vic­tor Gruen and be­came an as­so­ciate in Palmer’s ar­chi­tec­tural of­fice. In 1950 Krisel was made a part­ner in the Palmer and Krisel firm, which later be­came known as P&K.

In 1953, he mar­ried his wife, Corinne, who sur­vives him along with their two chil­dren, Wil­liam and Michelle.

In re­cent years, Krisel’s work has en­joyed a resur­gence in Palm Springs, where en­tire neigh­bor­hoods of homes de­signed by him and built by the Alexan­ders re­main in­tact. Not only are Krisel’s Mod­ernist de­signs be­ing re­stored, they are be­ing re­pro­duced, half a cen­tury later.

“Desert Mod­ernism and the iconic home de­sign of Palm Springs are syn­ony­mous with Wil­liam Krisel,” said Lisa Vossler Smith, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mod­ernism Week. “He was a pro­lific and in­no­va­tive ar­chi­tect whose pi­o­neer­ing work has led him to be­come one of the most im­por­tant fig­ures in Amer­i­can Mid­cen­tury Mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture.”

In 2006, new con­struc­tion was un­der­way on res­i­dences based on his orig­i­nal plans and marked by such retro touches as winged roofs, but up­graded to cur­rent build­ing codes and fea­tur­ing green tech­no­log­i­cal fea­tures and lux­ury ameni­ties.

“Bill was a prag­ma­tist who be­lieved in Mod­ernism as a phi­los­o­phy and held to his prin­ci­ples through­out his long ca­reer,” said Sid­ney Wil­liams, for­mer cu­ra­tor of Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign at the Palm Springs Art Mu­seum.

“De­sign­ing houses that were af­ford­able and hand­some, he left an im­por­tant mark on Palm Springs ar­chi­tec­ture. Even when he re­tired from ac­tive prac­tice, he ad­vised cur­rent own­ers on how to up­date their houses for the 21st cen­tury.”

The ar­chi­tect had an ex­pla­na­tion for Mod­ernism’s en­dur­ing ap­peal.

“Mid­cen­tury Mod­ernism is not a style, it’s a lan­guage,” Krisel said in 2006. “It stays the same whether it’s spo­ken in 1955 or 2005. It’s a lan­guage that will al­ways be spo­ken.”

‘Desert Mod­ernism and the iconic home de­sign of Palm Springs are syn­ony­mous with Wil­liam Krisel.’ — Lisa Vossler Smith, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mod­ernism Week

James Sch­nepf

James Sch­nepf Palm Springs Mod­ern Liv­ing

‘PRO­LIFIC AND IN­NO­VA­TIVE’ Ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Krisel in front of one of the tract homes he de­signed in Palm Springs. “Be­fore that, af­ford­able tract houses were tacky, low-ceil­ing cracker boxes with holes poked out for win­dows,” Krisel told The Times in a 2008 in­ter­view.

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